An American Pickle (2020)
In the early 20th century, Jewish immigrant Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen) is accidentally knocked into a vat of brine at the Brooklyn pickle factory where he works. Preserved for a century, he is awakened in the modern-day, when his only living relative is his great-grandson, Ben (also Seth Rogen), a freelance app developer. The tough, stoic, but simple Herschel struggles to make sense of the contemporary world and of his somewhat nebbish descendent, who, in turn, has trouble dealing with his Old-World antecedent.
It’s a comedy, see? Of course it is — a guy is preserved in pickle juice for a century and the explanation is handwaved away with a knowing wink to the audience. But An American Pickle is, despite and sometimes because of its occasional mugging and fourth-wall-breaking, a fairly cerebral and witty comedy with literary roots. Adapted by Simon Rich, Miracle Workers (2019-20), from his own four-part novella, Sell Out, An American Pickle ruminates on notions of history, identity, family, and duty while taking time to sling obvious but accurate stones at hipster culture, online dogpiles, woke business ethics, and more. It’s a blast.
Well, if you’re down for that sort of thing, it’s a blast. If your idea of a blast is a wry chuckle not a million miles away from Rogen’s own, it’s a blast. The film walks a fine line between the broad and the very specific, with tones rooted in American-Jewish identity and culture. The film appears to be — to my goyim eyes at least — Rogen in conversation with himself about his relationship to his cultural and religious heritage, measuring himself via the character of Ben against the tough, stoic European forebears who first came to North America (remember, Rogen himself is Canadian).
At first, the film seems to favor Herschel as a simple but amiable figure of can-do masculinity and throws shade at Ben. An early point of contention arises when Herschel finds out that Ben hasn’t maintained the cemetery plot where Herschel’s beloved wife, Sarah (Sarah Snook, in a brief but enjoyable turn), is planted. Herschel, a worker to the core, starts a bespoke pickle business to raise money to fix up the grave, which is a smash hit with inner-city trend-trackers. Retaliating, Ben points Herschel towards Twitter, where the briny old boy lets fly with some of his horribly unwoke opinions, resulting in an online backlash. And so it goes.
Rogen absolutely carries the film, but he does have help from, er, Rogen. He’s pretty great in the dual lead roles. While Ben is not a million miles away from Rogen’s usual schtick, he’s a more grounded and wounded version, still nursing emotional scars from the death of his parents. As Herschel, with the help of a full beard and a black cap, he’s a character who sometimes verges on cliché but still has a sense of interiority and complexity. The interplay between them is the engine of the film, and Rogen plays both parts beautifully and, importantly, distinctively.
The key to digging An American Pickle, I think, is understanding that it’s essentially a modern fable and demands to be read as such. This also excuses the sometimes-painterly CGI used to put us in Eastern Europe (the exact location is left deliberately murky) and early 20th century Brooklyn, and the occasionally intentionally simple and occasionally fantastical plot: more than anything else, it’s an allegory. As such, it works a treat; warm, witty, and ultimately deeply humanistic, it’s a real joy of a film.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Travis Johnson